#CSG is risky business for aquifers: @NaomiTWS proves even the ‘good guys’ know it


By Naomi Hogan @NaomiTWS

19th March 2014 

Introduction, by Margo Kingston: The NSW Government and Santos did not want the people to know that Coal Seam Gas (#CSG) exploration in the Pilliga State Forest had polluted an aquifer, because that would blow their cover that fracking could not harm the Great Artesian Basin. We know this terrible truth because Naomi Hogan, the Wilderness Society’s full time #Pilliga campaigner, worked long and hard to uncover the truth, and because Australia still has some mainstream media which wants to report the truth in the public interest, in this case the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC. Naomi tells a fascinating journalistic detective story I reckon you’ll learn a lot from. Thank goodness so many Australians, including my mother Jann Alcorn, fund the Wilderness Society and other great environmental protectors. We can’t trust the Government to act in the public interest when big miners are at the table, and compromised governments are busily defunding Environmental Defenders Offices which could assist citizens to ensure environmental laws are not breached (more on that in a post to come). The Wilderness Society brief on the issue is here.

This month, the Australian public came to know about uranium and heavy metal contamination of a groundwater aquifer by coal seam gas company Santos in the Pilliga Forest of North West NSW. This is the back story to the revelation, and my insights into attempts by Santos and the NSW Government to hide the facts.

The incentive to carry out the information request that brought the uranium contamination issue to light stems from a cover-up that started long before it was on the public’s radar.

In May, 2013, there was word from landholders in the Pilliga that Santos was surveying new coal seam gas drill sites and pipelines. How could that be? There had been no review documents posted online in the usual fashion. I’d been watching the Mineral Resources site every day. Where were the documents that showed Santos’ plans for new work?

The Wilderness Society, Newcastle, put in phone calls to the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas and the Department of Trade and Investment. We sent emails, but got no replies. We were being fobbed off.

Finally, after ongoing questioning, new documents were posted online. On June 4, 2013, I put out a press release titled: “Revealed: CSG cover-up lasted over 10 weeks”.

It turned out that it had taken almost three months for new coal seam gas drilling plans to be made publicly available, failing Government procedure for that information to be posted within 10 days.

The hidden documents outlined the biggest new plan for coal seam gas exploration drilling in NSW. Why the ten-week delay? The Department of Energy and Resources cited an “administrative error”.

Now that dozens of documents were online, our work became about finding time to read through them all. Part of me felt it was a pointless exercise, as the documents were just for our information, because coal seam gas ‘exploration’ drilling does not provide the opportunity for public comment.

Then I spotted it, and I read the line twice: “Suspected leak at the main holding pond at Bibblewindi”.

This was news to me.

It turned out that these documents revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) raised concerns on May 2013 with the Office of Coal Seam Gas about future coal seam gas waste water handling at the Bibblewindi pond in the Pilliga.

ABC News Tamworth covered this story on the June 6, 2013: Government tells Santos rehabilitation plans not good enough.

The next day I got notice that environmental breaches in the Pilliga had recently been discussed in NSW Parliament, and that the Environment Minister had given a statement. I read the Parliamentary reference. What I saw was, again, news to me. The statement read: “At this point, the EPA has no evidence of any current environmental breaches but is investigating elevated results from routine ground water monitoring in the vicinity of the Bibblewindi water treatment facility. This investigation commenced in March 2013. The EPA cannot determine when the investigation will be completed”.

The EPA was running an investigation into ground water at Bibblewindi. Interesting.

Now that I knew there was a suspected leak, elevated results in groundwater and an EPA investigation going on, I felt that surely this was enough for a story. I called Ben Cubby at The Sydney Morning Herald and he pulled something together, making it to some back-page corner of that Saturday’s SMH. The heading read, Santos pollution alert as it pushes for more gas sites. No one seemed to care too much. Fair enough.

Time passed, the eight new coal seam gas drilling sites in question were approved, despite the ongoing investigation which I still knew very little about. My focus shifted to numerous other more urgent issues at hand regarding the community concerns about coal seam gas drilling in the Pilliga.

In early September 2013, after hearing nothing for months, I put in a call to the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas, asking where the groundwater investigation at Bibblewindi was up to. They called me back on Monday, September 16. The phone call is on the record via an internal email, I spotted it last week after trawling through the hundreds of heavily-censored documents that bought the uranium contamination to light.

It reads:

I contacted Naomi. She was inquiring about the Bibblewindi water investigation and wanted to know what we were looking at. I explained we were investigating a matter at Bibblewindi but as it was an investigation I could not discuss the matter further… I told her that I would contact her when the matters were finalised (I’ve made a note in my Tasks to do this). They are now down as high priority for me.

I would like to make the point here that there was no contact when the investigation was complete and matters were finalised.

After talking with the EPA, I could see that this whole investigation was just another barrier to finding out what was really going on. So, I decided to put in a request for papers under the NSW Freedom of Information laws. I carefully put together three questions and asked for:

All correspondence, reports and incidence reports that refer to groundwater monitoring at the Bibblewindi water treatment facility in the Pilliga forest of NSW, during the period of November 2012 to the present day.

All water and soil test results and analysis of any elevated levels contained in the results in the vicinity of the Bibblewindi water treatment facility in the Pilliga forest of NSW since November 2012.

The contents of the EPA investigation report that commenced in March 2013 regarding groundwater in the vicinity of the Bibblewindi water treatment facility.

I emailed the EPA with the request on September 23, 2013. After the first $30 cheque was accepted, they classed the request valid on October  1, 2013.

The EPA warned me that most of the documents would be withheld due to the ongoing investigation that I couldn’t be privy to. They told me it wouldn’t be worth my while due to the investigation and necessary censorship.  I understood, but was undeterred and pushed ahead with the request anyway, coughing up the additional $180 they wanted.

By mid-December they wanted more time to make the final decision. I didn’t feel like I really had a say in the matter. I let them have the time they requested.

Finally, in early February, 2014, a disk with almost 300 documents arrived in response to my request. The cover letter informed me that almost 100 full documents would not be released, and 5 others would be partially released. The hundreds I received also had information censored.

The phone had been ringing hot, and I headed off to the North West. It was all happening. Farmers were blocking Santos drill rigs; community meetings were being organised; and Gomeroi traditional owners requested me for briefings about coal seam gas in the Pilliga. Deputy NSW Premier and head of the state National Party, Andrew Stoner, had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to fast-track  the Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga. I just had to run. The CD sat there, unopened.

I eventually got back to the office, totally inspired by the conviction and actions of farmers and community members in the North West, fighting to protect land and water from coal seam gas.

In response to the community opposition, Santos began a new ad campaign, claiming it is no threat to our groundwater resources. Buddies of the coal seam gas industry also started throwing claims around, and Peter Reith got a cosy column in The Sydney Morning Herald on February 25 stating: “I believe you would be hard pressed to find any independently confirmed cases of water contamination as a result of drilling by the gas industry after more than 2 million fracking operations in the US”.

I looked down from Reith’s confident words and noticed the CD of documents still sitting there. “I’ve got a million other things to do,” I thought to myself, so I put out a call for help, and a farmer from the North West committed to going through them all. “What a Saint!” I thought, as I posted off a copy of the CD.

On Thursday, March 7, 2014, the phone rang. The farmer found within the hundreds of documents a reference to uranium being in the groundwater at Bibblewindi. A check on the EPA website confirmed a media release stating Santos had been fined two weeks earlier. The release just said there were “elevated levels” and a “pollution incident”. It didn’t say anything about uranium.

The Sydney Morning Herald was alerted to the EPA media release. I told them about the uranium. They called the EPA, and the story unravelled on Saturday morning, March 9, 2014.  It was finally publicly reported that Santos had been very quietly fined a paltry $1500 for poisoning the aquifer in the Pilliga forest with uranium 20 times safe levels and other toxic heavy metals.

It was reported by some as the first proven case of aquifer contamination from CSG in Australia.

Now, I’ve been privy to numerous stories from across the globe regarding groundwater pollution incidences caused by unconventional gas mining. But the company’s lawyers outstrip the farmers and you can guess who ends up being silenced without ‘proof’.

The notable fact in this Pilliga case is that it provides government-endorsed proof that the aquifer was contaminated by coal seam gas activities, solidified by the fact the EPA handed out a fine for it.

But without ongoing pressure and independent investigation over months, this proof would have been conveniently swept under the carpet by government and industry. Like all the work to protect the North West from coal seam gas field industrialisation, it was a team effort that resulted in the information finally seeing the light of day.

Mark and Cherie Robinson at NSW Parliament.

Mark and Cherie Robinson at NSW Parliament.

The Monday following the weekend story, we held a press conference out the back of NSW Parliament with farmers who travelled down from the NSW North West to address their concerns with the groundwater contamination. Dry land farmer Mark Robinson was particularly compelling – he was just so angry that groundwater was contaminated and farmers were not told, and that the National Party had abandoned the bush for Santos.

Santos held a counter press conference hours later in the same place. Vice President of Eastern Australia, Santos’ James Baulderstone, stated twice that: “We are the good guys here”. Under a barrage of press questioning, Baulderstone and his Santos colleague eventually stormed off. I looked him up later. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Baulderstone’s salary and bonus equals $950,000 per year. This guy seems to be making a small fortune out of pushing a risky business that has both Santos shareholders and farmers on edge. “Good guys”, eh?

That same afternoon, North West farmers, a Lock the Gate representative and I headed to the EPA for a meeting with Mark Gifford, the Chief Environmental Regulator. Alongside confirming that yes, it was an aquifer that had been contaminated (Santos had their hydrogeologist come out that morning claiming it was a “perched layer”, as if that somehow made uranium contamination okay), Mark Gifford confirmed he would get back to me with the list of all media outlets that EPA media release was sent to.

I also asked for the list of government departments and Ministers that were privy to the release. Did Andrew Stoner have any idea about the groundwater contamination when he signed that MOU with Santos, just two days after the release went up?

I’m still waiting on Mark’s response. In the mean time I’m determined to gain access to the hundred documents I missed in the first request, so the saga continues. I put yet another cheque in the mail with an updated request last week to try and get the documents that they withheld while the investigation was being carried out. I want the full story.

This week I expect to hear back that my request for the documents previously withheld is valid. And then we wait. I wonder if I’ll ever get that phone call about Bibblewindi they committed to last September? I guess they know I’ve figured it out despite them.

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  1. oldozsapper says

    Yup, and the sad thing is its all happened before; Asbestos, DDT, 24D/245T, Bopal (Union Carbide), then GMOs and on it goes, all one way or another in the same bed doing the same thing. And they want us to trust them, a-bloody-gain!

  2. Milton Judd says

    Without the efforts of people like Naomi in the TWS, we north westerners would be treated like mushrooms if the government and their financiers Santos had their way, kept in the dark and fed on shit! Good on you Naomi, love, Miltie.

  3. Great work Naomi & Margo!

    This really puts Peter Reith on the spot … and the NSW EPA … and the Office of Coal Seam Gas … and Santos … and Stoner … and the Minister.

    Now that Texas and Queensland are enjoying their new sister-state arrangement, it’s worthwhile googling “Texas groundwater fracking” to see the multitude of problems Texas has, and Queensland undeniably will have.

    I have no doubts that because this fracking industry “self-monitors” there are countless spills, leaks, seepages, blow outs, explosions etc that go unreported … hushed up because they know that every media leak costs them big money.

    Again Naomi … great work!

  4. The diversity of reptiles in the Pilliga is significant. They are at or near the top of the food chain and as such will be affected by any contamination. From the soil and then through the plants to the birds of prey, the concentrations of toxic chemicals will increase with probable dire consequences. And I don’t think the graziers will be too pleased at their stock feeding on the meagre feed available.
    My worry that the beef cattle ingesting uranium laced grass might be an over reaction (sorry?) but it is definitely something worth considering.

  5. Great piece Naomi!
    Thanks for your dogged persistence in unearthing the truth, your commitment to getting this story out – and for telling it so well.

  6. In the beautiful Gloucester valley we are facing the perfect storm of expansion of open cut coal mines and 330 coal seam gas wells.
    These major, destructive cumulative extraction impacts are and will occur in the Manning and Karuah/Port Stephens water catchments that serve collectively more than a hundred thousand people. (Map available groundswellgloucester.com)

    After extensive work from the community in compiling scientific documents such as ‘Exposing the Risks” (re AGL CSG), comprehensive submissions re Stratford Coal 24hr extension and numerous meetings and unanswered correspondence with Ministers and government representatives – communities such as Gloucester are in total disbelief as to the total lack of truth, transparency and community justice regarding the resource extraction industries.
    ( Please go to groundswellgloucester.com to download “Exposing the Risks” and media releases)

    Indeed, when 12 representatives from across Australia (organised by Lock The Gate) met in Canberra recently with Federal politicians to outline key concerns, many of them commented that they have serious issues regarding hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the contamination of water resources and food supply. Yet we see a very poor and weak response in the public arena from those same community elected representatives to stand up against the seemingly powerful resource extraction industries.
    ( for further reporting of the lobbying visit on the 4/5/6th March – http://www.lockthegate.org.au/communities_call_for_fair_go_on_coal_and_gas_mining)

    Independent hydrogeologist Dr Philip Pells has expressed his deep concerns regarding the Gloucester AGL project on ABC 4 Corners, ABC 7.30 Report and in many forums, conferences and media reports.
    Please find attached Dr Pells’ memorandum titled “The blowout of Well LMG03 (Stratford 3) at Gloucester September 2004″ regarding gas venting from a number of old coal exploration boreholes. There are many documents from Dr Pells outlining why this CSG venture in Gloucester is highly risky and problematic.

    The NSW Chief Scientist Dr Mary O’Kane has also expressed concerns due to the highly faulted geology of the Gloucester basin. The interim report (attached) is available and we await the full report in July this year.

    Gloucester is an area afforded ‘Bioregional Status” from the Federal Government and is being assessed by the Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC) along with the Federal Environmental Regulator. (http://www.environment.gov.au/coal-seam-gas-mining/publications.html )
    We met with both groups late in 2013 at the Gloucester Council chambers, to outline our valid and serious concerns regarding the scientific problems with the cumulative impacts of the resource extraction industries in the Gloucester valley system. The Federal Government OWS and IESC report will not be available until early 2015. Stages two and three of the AGL CSG field will be affected by the EPBC Act and ‘Water trigger” legislation.

    We met with the following NSW government departments on the 24th January 2014 at a roundtable meeting in Gloucester :-
    Office of Coal Seam Gas, Jock Laurie (Land and Water Commissioner), Office of Water, Dept Trade and Investment, Dept Resources and Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Office Environment and Heritage. We thank Mark Gifford (Chief Environmental Regulator – EPA) for arranging the visit to Gloucester to meet with our community organisation.

    Key investor groups have visited Gloucester and have seen the issues facing our communities. We deeply appreciate their interest and responses.

    The media have been adept and insightful regarding the issues of land and water degradation, lack of government transparency and the role that the resource extraction industry have taken regarding truth and community justice. The litany of exposures are an indictment on the processes of government and the behaviour of industry where, to the ordinary person on the street, it is apparent that a lack of ethical, moral and just behaviour is being allowed to continue unchecked.

    Please find attached legal letters to NSW government departments regarding AGL and their approach to hydraulic fracturing of coal seam gas wells in Gloucester.
    We still await an answer from the Office of Coal Seam Gas since November 2013.
    We have a freedom of information request (GIPA) to investigate the transparency in the whole process of the AGL gasfield approval. Unbelievably, AGL do not have a current exploration license to operate. http://epa.nsw.gov.au/prpoeoapp/SearchResult.aspx?SearchTag=all&searchrange=general&range=general
    A productive well has been abandoned and capped (see attached letter) that strangely is involved in the legal issue where an EIS should have been required. This question has received no response from any government department to date.

    Also find attached a letter from the EPA regarding the AGL proposal for an ‘irrigation trial’ with produced water from CSG operations. This letter ‘appeared’ in the SMH article by Michael West in November 2013, however the letter is dated 2nd April 2012! Previously unseen by the community, we are rightly concerned with how many more recommendations from government departments have been disregarded in the haste to see Coal Seam Gas proceed, regardless of the obvious and now very culpable dangers to our water, food supplies, human and animal health!

    Please find attached “Salt Water games” – an article in response to the AGL irrigation trial. It should also be noted that the fodder irrigated from the diluted produced water was sold to farmers for cattle feed and is now in the food chain. (see also Mark Anning, Journalist, 1EarthMedia – re food contamination concerns)

    The Medical Journal of Australia stated in the article ” Harms unknown: health uncertainties cast doubt on the role of unconventional gas in Australia’s energy future”on the 3rd March 2014 that “…there is an emerging body of evidence on the areas of greatest potential risk and uncertainty in regards to water, air and social pathways”. We have publicly requested our Federal Member for Lynne, Dr David Gillespie, to respond to the article and visit this community to address these fundamental concerns.

    Both Hunter Water and Midcoast Water have publicly refused to accept the waste water from AGL’s coal seam gas operations. We ask where the waste water will go and will the public be made aware of the destination?

    The Australia Institute have roundly discredited (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-30/csg-companies-accused-of-scare-tactics/5226766?&section=news), as has Ross Gittins SMH, the truly dishonest claims that we are ‘running out of gas” – including the industry players themselves at the recent Australian Gas Industry conference in Sydney.

    The concerns as outlined above are the tip of the iceberg and we have started to compile a timeline of media articles, political responses, government department responses (or lack thereof), meetings and representations over a considerable period of time. This will be available to the general community and is a powerful example of what many communities across Australia are dealing with.

    Many find it difficult to comprehend just how tortured and inadequate the processes of government and industry are. It is even more devastating to those who believe government and industry ‘do the right thing” by the ordinary person in caring for their environments, health and well-being.

    People are unable to sell their homes. Families will be forced to have gas wells less than 350 metres from their homes and open cut mines just one kilometre from their family living rooms. The spin and lack of credibility from the industry is breathtaking and quite simply dispiriting in its dishonesty.

    Currently, AGL representatives are walking the main street offering local Gloucester businesses 19-21% off of their electricity bill if they change to AGL – and that this is a special offer to Gloucester and not ‘Newcastle or the Central Coast etc” as we “have CSG” in our area.

    The great furphy of the 2km “exclusion zones” policy does not apply to Gloucester residents in the first stage of 110 gas wells.

    Mental health issues are on the rise.
    Community health screening of lung function measurement continues, along with the proposal for full, pre CSG health checks for the 50 families that will be exposed directly to the fracking of the wells as proposed in the first stage. There is growing concern amongst many of the 3000 residents of the Gloucester valley and the compilation of the health check statistics for future community class action potential.

    Please go to groundswellgloucester.com for further information.

  7. Naomi

    Are you aware that until recently Peter Reith was listed as a lobbyist for First State Advisors, whose clients include Thiess and the major CSG exploration licence holder in NSW, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council(!)?

    This obvious vested interest (at least until recently) is almost never mentioned by media outlets wherein he opines on CSG.



  8. A Whiter Shade of Pale says

    Can I seek (from you) to have this piece printed in the local paper in Narrabri?
    You are true champions !

  9. Shared. A good read and very important. I always thought the EPA media release looked like it had been written for them by Santos.

  10. Whoa….I have just read a piece about the viability of CSG and why the Ukraine should not depend on it to replace up to 65% of their energy needs. It is seriously disturbing. Not only for the people of the Ukraine but especially for Australia.


    Are we ruining our underground aquifers for even less reason than we are already aware of? We urgently need scientific evidence to verify the integrity and long term viability of LNG that comes from fracking. I have never yet read anything about how long the gas lasts for – has anyone?

  11. Alan is joined on the line by the Monash University scientist to talk about a coal seam gas forum at Parliament House in Macquarie Street tomorrow


    Believe it or not but Alan Jones has been fighting coal seam gas since his address on the subject to the national press club in 2011.

  12. Australia is listed 10th in the world for conventional gas reserves. CSG accounts for less than 20% of our national gas resource.

    A simple pipeline from the Northern Territory to the Cooper basin, as currently proposed by the NT Government, would ensure the east coast states have access to all their gas requirements via existing pipelines.

    Santos has already demonstrated that water contamination is a reality in the Pilliga forest.

    Why risk the water tables of the Casino/Kyogle district, the beef capital of Australia. Contaminate the water and kiss goodbye to the beef capital.

    Similarly with the Black Plains, the Southern Tablelands and all the other prime agricultural land in the eastern states earmarked for CSG extraction.

    We have gas in abundance, fracking and it’s potential risks is not an option we need consider.